The Constant Gardener

Not Recommended. Story of a political lobbyist of some kind (Ralph Fiennes) who seeks to discover why his wife was killed in an accident only to discover a cover up by drug companies who are using the poor in third world countries as guinea pigs for drug experimentation. The film is visually creative and acted well, but was boring as a story. They revealed the twist about the drug companies experimenting on the poor at about the half way point or less and then failed to reveal anything beyond this for the rest of the picture, unless I missed something when I dozed off, but I don’t think I did.

Four Brothers

Not Recommended. Four adopted brothers return to their home town to get revenge on their adopted mother’s killers. What appears to be a random robbery killing turns out to be an execution, and the four brothers, all troublemakers with criminal pasts, rise to the occasion without fear in order to accomplish some “street justice.” Well, this isn’t justice at all. It’s pure revenge to the last drop. I am disappointed with John Singleton. He started his career with a very responsible Boyz in the Hood that did not shrink from the realities of ghetto culture, but posited a responsibility of self-determination to rise above it, transcend one’s bad circumstances. Unfortunately, Four Brothers actually reinforces the ghetto hate culture of guns, violence and revenge. The mother is an older lady who says the only redeeming thing in the movie to a young lad caught stealing: “I believe you’re worth more. But you’ve got to believe you’re worth more.” (about the only link to Singleton’s responsible past) And then he proceeds to decimate the morality behind that little profundity with heros who are relentless cold blooded killers who mock and abuse women. Cinematically, it was just pure ludicrous action as these guys carry around guns openly like the old west (And this wasn’t South Central either. It was a SUBURB of Detroit), engage in car chases where there no cars on the streets, have shootouts in broad daylight where absolutely no one is around and no one calls the cops. All right, I can accept a certain amount of suspended disbelief, and even a certain amount of exaggeration for a movie, but this one went way too far. And then Mark Wahlberg waves a gun around, breaking up a basketball game to ask people if they know about their mother’s killer. And it is just ridiculous that there are no consequences for his criminal display. But the worst aspect of this story is that this is the kind of stuff that breeds a ghetto culture of violence in kids. It perpetuates the belief that you must take “justice” into our own hands in revenge. Sure, there is some self-defense in the movie, but the overwhelming spirit is definitely Vigilante violence and revenge that goes way beyond finding justice for a mother’s killer.

Be Cool

Not Recommended. Chili Palmer leaves the movie business to try his hand in the music business. A couple of great jokes in this sequel to Get Shorty. Especially a great intelligent response by a Hip Hop producer to a Russian who calls him the N-word. The producer describes a litany of creative and economic influence of the black culture on the history of America – and then shoots him. On the one hand, very clever, on the other, the very problem with this story and its merchants of cool. I’m sorry, but ghetto gangsta culture is NOT COOL. It is EVIL. Its promotion of hatred, racism and violence against women and authority and violence in general, is just not worthy of be considered “cool.” And for that matter, neither is gangster and Hollywood culture. I like movies that mock those cultures, but not CELEBRATE them. And that’s why I could not enjoy this film. It seemed to have more fun with betrayal, murder, gangsters and gangstas than it did about any sense of doing the right thing. Yes, Chili Palmer is cool in that he talks his way out of most confrontations rather than using force . But HE REMAINS A CRIMINAL without repentance, and therefore is not a worthy hero to elevate or celebrate.

Assault on Precinct 13

Not really Recommended. The story of a group of bad cops assaulting an old police precinct in order to kill a criminal housed inside who will testify against the dirty cops. Pretty straightforward predictable action movie. The hero, played by Ethan Hawke, is a burned out ex-Narcotics undercover who blames himself for his partners being killed in a sting operation. So it has the standard cop action film storyline of redemption. He must overcome his self-blame and withdrawn inactivity in life. If he doesn’t, he will be killed by the bad guys. So “action” is not merely a reference to guns and fights, but a metaphor for salvation. We must act in order to find life. Sitting around and contemplating is not living. In this sense, action movies tend to be Existentialist. Not entirely false. But these kind of movies are tough to make hard line recommendations on. On the one hand, I heartily affirm movies that reinforce that we must fight against evil, even to the point of killing in self defense. This is a good countercultural value to our culturewide appeasement of evil. If we just give evil men what they want, they will leave us alone. Sound familiar? There’s even an old cop who says that line, thus reinforcing those who treasure life more than justice. This is all good stuff. I love how the hero is a man attempting to be righteous, to do what it right. Ethan won’t release the criminal to save his own skin. He has a commitment to the law and he will do his job. These kind of things are great moral worldview elements. The problem is that sometimes these kind of movies can degenerate into Darwinian survival of the fittest contests. For instance, where kindness and wits do not necessarily win, but brute force and cleverness does. In this case, there are a bit too much brutality which can tend to overshadow the righteousness aspect. There are a bit too many close ups of people with bullet holes through their heads. In fact, I think there were about 7 or 8. The love interest of the hero is killed near the end, which was a real unpredictable shocker in terms of the genre (You just don’t kill the love interest), but I think it lended toward a more nihilistic Darwinian worldview. And they go out of their way to keep the camera on her face with the bullet hole through it, way too long. This was particularly pessimistic. It was like saying, this is the end of Love: Death. Period. All your hopes for love as the resolution of this story are despair. The Criminal, played by Laurence Fishburne says in a church that he doesn’t believe in God because of the evil in the world, another atheistic evolutionary argument for the “war of all against all.” The Criminal emphasizes several times that he is helping the hero fight the bad guys only because it is in his self interest for self-preservation to do so. Ethan lets the criminals loose to help fight against the crooked cops attacking them. A sort of evolutionary cooperation to survive. Of course, the criminal should think this way, cause that is what he is. But he stresses at the end that he let’s the cop live only out of thanks for saving his life. But if he tries to stop him, he will kill him. Again, consistent in one sense, but the stress on it in the story seemed to me to be too much. It tended to reinforce that Darwinian survival determines this ending, not righteousness. This movie was just a little too much survival of the fittest and too little righteousness for me to really recommend.

Ocean’s Twelve

Not Recommended. I dreaded having to watch this film. Paying for this movie is thievery. It’s really very simple, folks. Kindergarten lesson in morality: CRIME IS NOT COOL. If you support crime as cool, then you are morally responsible for adding to the culture of crime by encouraging kids to do so. And don’t tell me it doesn’t influence kids. Hollywood will go on moralistic crusades against displaying cigarettes in movies and they spew hatred at those who do because they say it MAKES SMOKING LOOK COOL. BUT IT’S ALL RIGHT FOR THEM TO depict crime as cool and all of a sudden, it doesn’t affect kids. What absolute hypocrites. Now they believe movies affect kids, now they don’t. Surprise! I normally try to say what I like about a film, even if I don’t agree with it, but this one is so morally bankrupt, the immorality overshadows the good. It would be like trying to say what is good about a porn film. There is a point at which the bad overcomes the good and devalues anything that might have been good. Same here. In this movie, the whole lump of dough has been leavened. The only reason why I didn’t leave half way through is because I knew I couldn’t say this with authority unless I knew how it ended. And I actually gave it the benefit of the doubt, thinking, maybe, just maybe it would have a moral twist at the end like Matchstick Men. But alas, it did not. Please don’t miss this. I am NOT saying making a movie about crime is wrong, or depicting crime is wrong. I am saying depicting crime as COOL and making it pay IS WRONG. I have no respect for these actors who protest with their self-righteous Church Lady tongue wagging that the war in Iraq is criminal, and then make a movie saying crime is cool. This is moral pollution. Do they really think God is not watching? And oh yeah, it’s just one big celebrity worship orgy. Everyone acting their parts like celebrities playing cool criminals and having a ball at it. Oh, yeah, fun! Hey, aren’t they such cool criminals! At least that’s what kids are going to think. I sure as heck didn’t. I was repulsed. The antidote to this movie is The Ladykillers, where crime starts out as cool, but then it is revealed to be what it truly is: Fool. Now that is cool.

The Machinist

Recommended with caution. This is a great moral tale about guilt and consequences of sin. It does have a dark “arthouse” edge but it has an ultimately redeeming moral to it. My mantra is that thrillers like this are among the strongest lights of morality in a postmodern world that denies absolute morality and guilt. Christian Bale wins the award for the most extreme commitment to acting because he let his body shrink to a concentration camp victim skeleton of malnutrition in depicting a man whose guilt over his past consumes him and breaks his life apart. Not only does it break apart his own life, but hurts others as well. He can’t eat, hasn’t slept in a year, and can only buy sex from a prostitute because he cannot achieve true intimacy with anyone. He becomes paranoid that people are out to get him and has confusing perceptions of reality. He is haunted by his conscience in the form of a guy who no one else sees, and the machinist tries to kill – He’s trying to kill his conscience. His crime lies in not accepting responsibility or consequences of his own mistake in an accident that led to a death. It could be argued that this is a bit weak because the hero’s ghost is not a deliberate evil on his part, but an accident. But on the other hand, it can be more universal because he is still avoiding his responsibility for hurting others, he is running not from a crime, but his responsibility in an accident – which becomes a crime. That makes him more of an Everyman that we can all relate to. He’s not a deliberate criminal, but a normal guy with a criminal spirit. Hmmmm. Sounds to me like Total Depravity. Brad Anderson also wrote and directed Session 9, which is another EXCELLENT SCARY thriller about self-deception and suppression of evil in the soul. The Machinist is a great moral fable on par with Se7en, The Addiction, Phone Booth and Collateral. I find it not coincidental that the movie poster has the artistic shadow of a crucifix over the main character. I only pray it comes from the writer’s own worldview reflecting the origin of this notion of conscience and guilt.

Ladder 49

Recommended. A slice of life type movie about a young firefighter. What is so interesting about this powerful homage to the heroism of firefighters (and by extension in my mind, police) is that it is not a strong story, but it is still riveting and interesting from beginning to end. It’s plot is a rather unoriginal story of the rookie firefighter joining a firehouse, falling in love, marrying, having kids, and facing the ultimate fire of his life. Somewhat episodic, riveting nonetheless. No conspiracy, no criminal element like in Backdraft, just an everyday hero. But it is very loving about family and yet the tension of that value with the value of risking one’s life to save others. It ends with a huge firefighter funeral, that although it does not refer to 9/11 at all, it certainly evoked such powerful gratitude and emotion in my heart for those heros who saved lives on that fateful day, while losing their own. It shows the humanity of these men, with all their faults and fun, but doesn’t degenerate into negativity like Dark Blue did for cops, or unqualified worship either. It’s about time we had an honoring yet balanced movie. And it has a surprise non-Hollywood ending that totally threw me. What I love about this is that it starts with the hero, played by Joqauin Phoenix, facing certain doom trapped in a huge burning building, and then the entire movie is a flashback of his life, which pretty much embodies the notion of having your life flash before you when facing death. I loved that about it. We need to think more about death, because it forces us to examine our lives, what is so important to us, what we are wasting time on, and so forth. The firefighting episodes throughout were just realistic yet interesting, no fantastic FX or impossible feats of firemen leaping 20 feet to safety and all the typical outrageous action stunts that Hollywood thinks we need to be satisfied. How refreshing. What I did not like about the movie is a couple of things. First of all, yet another movie that deals with death and the meaning of life and it totally ignores God. This disingenuiness is multiplied by the fact that the only reference to religion at all is the mention that most of them are Catholic and then they play a funny “confession” prank on the newbies. No Problem there. We all have fun. But then not a single other reference to God is made throughout the entire film, as if these men do not think about God when facing death, as if God is not relevant to Catholics. Look, God becomes relevant to atheists when facing death. This is a sad and deep lacking in the souls of the moviemakers that makes them try to ignore the real spiritual side of this job of heros. Another major weakness is in the lack of character arc in the hero. Actually, the lack of much of any motivation at all. We see him brood a lot, we see him struggle with his wife about wanting to take on more danger in his job in order to save lives, while she argues for the need to stay alive for his family, his children. Okay, good setup, but we never learn WHY he wants so badly to save lives. Throughout, he is a pretty two dimensional character, while the secondary character, the Captain, played By John Travolta, has more revelation than the hero. Though even here, it is not enough, we learn that the Captain follows in a line of firefighters in his family. Okay, that gives us a little understanding of where he is coming from, but nothing about the hero. So he remains too aloof and mysterious throughout the story. Someone that it is too hard to identify with because we don’t know WHY he does anything. Too unclear. But overall, great movie that elevates family, love, sacrifice, loving friendship and the heroism of firefighting.

The Manchurian Candidate

Not really recommended. I was mildly and happily surprised that this movie about mind control and politics starring the mighty Denzel Washington was not another thinly veiled political agitprop. The filmmakers did a great job of displaying a U.S. Presidential election without showing any parties and without making the good guys or bad guys obviously either of the parties. In fact, they set up characters as almost combinations of both parties. The guy who is running for president has an agenda called “compassionate vigilance” much akin to Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” but this same character also brags and crows on about how “I’ve faced the enemy on the battlefield,” just like a John Kerry. But I must say, the candidate, Raymond Shaw, played well by Liev Shrieber, and his controlling Lady Macbeth mother, played by Meryl Streep, are wittingly or unwittingly, dramatized to be more like Democrats or liberals. The dirty rotten, scheming, controlling socialist mother is unavoidably a replicant of Hillary Clinton, down to the hairdo and look. I heard they tried to recut the movie so she wouldn’t be as much like her. Also, Shaw’s unnamed party talks about easily winning the East Coast and California, but not holding onto the Southern states, obvious strengths and weaknesses of the Dems. Interestingly, Mother Hillary Streep is concerned all about medical care and says a line to an enemy trying to stop her, “I will bury you,” that I just could not help but connect with the Hillary ideological bedfellow Nikita Kruschev’s famous line to Kennedy that “we will bury you!” This movie did an interesting take on the Cold War scenario. Rather than the typical clichéd controlling fascist or Big Brother government being the villain, in this movie, it is the evil multinational corporations that transcend politics altogether. I see some good and some bad in this. I think that there is plenty of danger and heartless evil intent behind many corporations concerned with profit unhindered by morality. This is undeniably real. And this is certainly a more realistic concern for our world than the fantastic fiction of an empire-building America. Couple problems: 1) It may encourage a more neo-Marxist distortion of social theory that reduces all power issues to class warfare and exploitation by capitalist corporations. I only say this, not because I believe the movie intends such imbalanced perspective but because the current milieu in which we now find ourselves has made a certain fashion of Marxist envy and resentiment, as the French would say, and Nietzsche would elucidate and Michael Moore would mangle and bastardize. That irrational hatred for anyone better off than you are. 2) I think the movie’s plot suffers because of this. For the whole point of putting the Global Conglomerate’s man into office by assassinating the newly elected president, is not really spelled out beyond having a man in their control who “runs the country.” Yeah, but why? What do they really want to do? What’s the real goal of having their man in there? They never really say, which makes the story a bit unsatisfying. Also, I see a moral failing with the film. At the end, when the bad guys are caught and Denzel assassinates the Vice President and his mother instead, we are all supposed to say it’s okay cause the mother was evil, and the good guy was brainwashed. But the problem is that the VP gives Denzel a strong look at the end that tells him and us that he does remember, that there is a small part of him deep down that they can’t control, which hints at Denzel to kill them, not the innocent president. But see, if there is that ultimate untouchable part of our will that cannot be controlled, then Denzel did not kill under mind control but under his free will to do so. Which makes him a murderer, and of a good guy!! After all, the VP shows he is not a total puppet and foils the big bad corporation’s goal. Also, the Feds go back into security cameras and retouch Denzel’s pictures to look like another assassin from out of the country. They do this to save Denzel from paying for his own crime. Again, it is supposed to be okay cause he was manipulated by the One World Company. But consider the moral issues involved in this. If it’s okay for the government to lie and break the law in order to get the bad guys, then what is stop them from breaking the law when they think you and I are guilty? This is exactly the kind of thing that critics of the Patriot Act are wringing their hands about. If we allow the government to suspend civil liberties at any time, even to catch the bad guys, then how can we stop them when they suspend our civil liberties when we are not criminals? Power without moral restrictions always leads to more power and injustice and tyranny. And that’s not a movie, folks. That’s reality.

The Bourne Supremacy

Not really recommended. This movie sequel to The Bourne Identity, was a good popcorn type movie, but it is the closest thing I have seen to a movie without a plot that I have just about ever seen. It’s one long chase scene with a plot that seemed very incidental. The bad guys, led by an inside CIA head frame Bourne for a murder as a diversion for stealing dirty money earmarked for oil investment – I think. Whatever. So you may argue, yeah, but that’s all it’s supposed to be is an action chase movie. Yeah, well, the first movie had all that and then some. It was about identity and discovering evil one had participating in and repenting from it. And what about the Fugitive? Another pure chase film that had a very relevant medical subplot to it. Just cause it’s an action movie does not give you the right to be a stupid action movie. The best action films are ones that carry some greater or higher theme to them, like family love (Die Hard) or justice and atrocities (Tears of the Sun). They can do it. The filmmakers are just lazy or have empty lives themselves if they don’t put in the effort to give an action story a transcendent meaning. Okay, there is one attempt to do so in The Bourne Supremecy, but it is way too minor and played down. Bourne, still affected by his amnesia from the first movie, discovers his first hit he ever did. He then goes to the daughter of the man and woman he killed and tells her he’s sorry. Yeah, that’s about it. It’s so understated that I just thought, “You scumbag. It’s like you just told her so she would know the truth, not because you were repentant and deeply sorrowful.” It’s like he just made her life worse and ground it in with no redemption for her or himself. It was a token “I’m sorry” rather than a deep soul stirring cry from the heart. Action without redemption or transcendence is really just boring.